|Genre||Spooky Dark Closet Puzzling Platformer
Theologically, limbo exists as a state of divine neutrality, a residence between heaven and hell. Limbo by Playdead Studios displays this fuzzy pseudo-reality in its presentation, but with a sinister twist. This limbo can be cruel, grewsome and even downright evil. Bear traps randomly lie on the ground, forever waiting just for you alone to trigger them. Giant spiders hide in caves, hoping you'll wander close enough for them to skewer with their giant legs. In Limbo, ghost children satisfy their concept of play by setting up guilottines and buzzsaws to shred you. This game is in no way particularly kind.
However, that cruel nature only adds to the atmosphere as the player must remain constantly aware of the presense of death in this bizarre, mysterious minimalist world. In this world and state of existence, death is the norm. Beginning as a stylistic proof of concept by a disgruntled game artist named Arnt Jensen, the concept soon flourished into a full game as Jensen subsequently co-founded Playdead Studios with Dino Patti to develop his idea. Originally planned for a PC release, Playdead was able to procure Danish government grants and investor support while eventually deciding on an Xbox Live Arcade release, likely to avoid piracy worries and possibly for 360 exclusivity bonuses provided by Microsoft. The game eventually released this summer on July 21st during the 360's "Summer of Arcade." So, how does the final product match atmosphere and action? Does the constant presence of death help or hurt player mood and motivation? Let's take a deeper look and try to decide.
As the main game starts, Limbo drops us in a forest with little goal or direction. A small, odd-looking black-and-white character arises, surrounded by an ominous forest. In near silence and without guide, the player is sent off to explore this world and discover answers for themselves. Suffice it to say, the atmosphere and presentation in Limbo is extremely unique. And it works. The developers use every trick to perfection in order to immerse the player in this world and in this character. The UI is completely nonexistent and a slight film grain effect constantly haunts this world. While this game is perfectly playable on any setup, an hdtv with deep black levels really brings out the atmosphere. Limbo's graphics aren't particularly detailed, but the backgrounds often contain giant, overbearing objects to display scope, and even serve to foreshadow future areas and events. Animations are smooth yet concise, remaining fully fluid without being overbearing or adding flash that would take the player out of the mental environment. Sound is equally minimalist, keeping a constant feel to keep the player focused on the game and tasks at hand without becoming overbearing. Few non-ambient sounds are heard besides the player's footsteps and the sharp, distinctive sounds of dangerous objects (sometimes only once it's too late).
Gameplay starts unassumingly with simple objects and puzzles to clear, but quickly ramps up as puzzles become more complex and solutions become less and less evident. During a first playthrough, this game will leave you scratching your head very often, and with little to no help at all from the game to nudge you towards the answer. If you have enough self-control to refrain from peeking at a walkthrough, the game can certainly be frustrating at time. However, it never feels stale because puzzles are either completely novel or add a fresh element onto a previous puzzle type. This type of puzzle presentation encourages thinking outside of the box and certainly feels rewarding to the player upon completion, but it can also turn off less patient players. By the end, I almost felt tired from the game, not from the platforming elements but from the mental exertion needed as well as some fatiguing trial-and-error moments near the end. The overall platforming elements worked very well, with no hitches whatsoever between player and object or player and environment. Limbo controls well and is extremely playable. If it wasn't, the constant deaths would probably be much more frustrating.
While I was satisfied my playthrough by the end and intrigued by the possibilities of the intentionally vague ending, I couldn't help but feel a bit unfulfilled. I went back and found most of the collectible "eggs," which helped a bit, but some of that feeling still remained. This brings up an interesting point because reviewer complaints that "the game is too short for the money" seemed to spark a discussion about game length among members of the indie developer community. And while I'm the first to champion that main game length is of minimal importance, it does matter to many people with limited funds who are only interested in the main game/storyline and forego sidequests or multiplayer of any form. Specifically in the case of Limbo, I felt that the game didn't have enough reason to be replayed once past the initial scrounging for extra eggs. The game just doesn't offer more beyond a fresh playthrough every once in a while. Some sort of time trial modes (especially with leaderboards) could have gone a long way to encourage the player to keep playing and to breach the gap between a new player frustrated with the frequent deaths and an expert playing flying through the game with minimal obstruction. Limbo feels like it would be a very fun game to pick up and play for an hour every once in a while (since a clean playthrough with minimal deaths won't take much longer than that), but I haven't been able to find a reason to reach that point. This is why I feel unfulfilled.
Now, the collection of developers made a series of arguments to counter why length shouldn't matter, but in the end, they should see that it's a good thing that players want to play your game more, and they often don't need too big of a push to do so. Yes, it's true that $15 is often the price of a delivery pizza or admission to a movie and that in this sense, almost any $15 game would have more value. But the point of physical home entertainment is that it has persistent, continual value (well, it's arguable how much you even own dlc, but that's another story). And by the end, I still left a bit unfulfilled, and that is certainly a valid feeling to be able to send to print. For me, Limbo felt like it was worth $15, but it was close. For many people, it wouldn't feel quite so worthwhile.
As far as the complete package goes, Limbo is a refreshing little dark platformer. With an extremely unique art style that combines Burton-esque themes and a film noir atmosphere, the game is a very solid start for the newly created studio and certainly deserves a try. Some aspects of the game may not appeal to all players, but most should definitely be able to pull a good experience out of it.